But I want to keep it fresh, so I’m not bored – and to see if I can keep it current, given where we are as a congregation, as a denomination, and as a country. The Methodists seem to loathe one another, and Republicans and Democrats have mutually exclusive versions of reality. My congregation strives to rise above that – but we see people “drifting.” Not mad, just coming a little less often, and bit less engaged. They’ll come Christmas Eve. No use nagging them, or the Chreasters either. Here’s my plan (which of course could change by Tuesday).
For Advent, we gave out little simple prayer cards. “Here I am Lord. Here you are. Here was are together.” I’ll show one, and ponder the gentleness, the love, the peace in this. Then I’ll remind them this isn’t some made up, invisible, spiritual mood. It’s origin is in a real historical event – although that’s contested, isn’t it? not that a guy Jesus was born, but Was he really God? Does he really matter? The Incarnation isn’t an intellectual stumbling block, but a personal one: could somebody way back when make me give up my Sunday morning coffee on the veranda, or my hard-earned cash, or my valuable, jammed-full time?
Our country saw Impeachment this week. Watching it, you naturally infer that nothing is real but my pet ideology. Well, my frustration is real. And clearly there’s no way to be together with others. That’s why there’s drifting, diversions, superficiality – right? I’ll explain the preacher version of Facebook depression. It’s not that I look at FB and sink into a funk because everyone is so happy. Rather, I scan FB on Sunday afternoon and realize my people weren’t out of town, they just waltzed over to the park or slept in. How could they not come?
I’ll try to link this to our Howell family reunions, which have been terrific. But I’ve seen a couple of cousins and one aunt who just don’t show, or sit on the periphery when we’re playing our games. The hint hint is You are part of this family. How can you not join in? The drifting isn’t disbelief or rancor, but a vague yearning for… we’ve forgotten what. Henri Nouwen says our yearnings are a bottomless abyss. Maybe it’s simpler: the novelist Julian Barnes wrote, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”
We think yearning is for more. And more. So more leisure time. More things. More experiences. The latest gadget. A romantic fling. An additional grandchild. It’s additive, always – but it’s never Enough. Our Fall series was on Enough, so my people are accustomed to hearing the question How much is Enough? When have you had Enough? How can I come to understand that I am Enough?
Addition, more, is never enough. Maybe the real answer to our yearning is less. Or sacrifice. I did not see any congress-people offering a shred of sacrifice. When we do see it, we love it and are moved by it. Hence people’s patriotism and fawning over soldiers or firemen or policemen who die in duty. I’ll suggest that our Christmas story is precisely the kind of sacrifice we yearn for but never glimpse in our world. Or, actually, we all did, once.
So this: the sacrifice in the Christmas story isn’t God, Philippians 2 style, emptying God’s self of might and becoming human (although that’s a thing). Rather, it’s Mary. Sandwiched, unnoticed in our pageants and even art work, between Luke 2:6 and 2:7 is Mary’s labor, her agony, a lot of blood, pain and terror. While researching my forthcoming book on Birth, I found this, from Rachel Marie Stone: “A girl was in labor with God. She groaned and sweated and arched her back, crying out for her deliverance and finally delivering God, God's head pressing on her cervix, emerging from her vagina, perhaps tearing her flesh; God the Son, her Son, covered in vernix and blood, the infant God's first breath the close air of crowded quarters. God the Son, her Son, pressed to her bare breast. God the Son, her Son, drank deeply from his mother. Drink, my beloved. This is my body, broken for you.”
That moves me. And not just as a preacher. We’re having communion at my place on Christmas Eve. Can I think of Mary’s body being broken for Jesus, and thus for me and all of us? In my homily, I’ll turn this rumination on Mary’s torn flesh to say You are here because of your mother, and her sacrifice. No matter her motive, or your relationship, which might have been tender or dysfunctional. In the moment of birth, her body was broken for you. The first thing you saw as a person was – yes, your mother. But what you saw in her was selflessness, and sacrifice. After baby emerges, mom doesn’t say Am I okay? But Is my baby okay? She doesn’t ask How does my hair look? But Does she have 5 fingers? It’s not her pain, but the baby’s cry. That selflessness, her sacrifice, was why you kept breathing, and living. All your life you’ve wanted – that. To receive that, and to be that for others.
God so loved the world. And God was so loved, then, by Mary in her brokenness. To think of God being so loved, and yourself as so loved, and the other person as so loved, then you know you can say Here I am, Lord. Here you are. Here we are together. And it is Enough.